With an episode title like that, there was very little doubt of what this week’s story would be about. There was an early attempt to lay a false trail which wound up being the show’s avenue of entry into its chosen subject, but once we realised we were going to be looking into prostitution, 1978 style, the show then settled into being determinedly even-handed.
Looking back forty years, this was probably a transgressive episode. The show starts with an overblown panic about a body found dead in a children’s park, that turns out to be a young woman, a hooker, murdered by a serial killer. But this is not about Melody, nor the Dropcloth Killer, but about Patti, Patricia (an excellent guest performance by Dee Wallace, the mother in E.T.), Melody’s co-worker at the Village Spa, a massage parlour where, once a month, some guy comes in who wants a massage, the jerk.
Patti’s the centre of the episode, it’s her portrait. Billie, investigating Melody, quickly moves on to curiosity about Patti, then friendship with her. Patti busts the stereotype about hookers (well, of course she does). She’s genuinely pretty, she’s got her act together, she’s cool (we are very Seventies tropes here). She’s intelligent, has her sights set on breaking out of this business, just as soon as she gets her Real Estate Licence, and she’s studying hard.
The show plays around with our expectations. The Dropcloth killer isn’t just a MacGuffin: Patti misses a late night meet-up with Billie, dosn’t answer her phone, another body drops. I’d sort of expected this, but it’s misdirection, it’s another hooker, and Patti’s being pretty blase about being a possible victim where Billie is anxious and not a target at all.
Then the pair meet up at McKennas, where Lou joins them, unknowing of Billie’s friend, Patricia. He sees them both as career girls, professionals, is very impressed that Patricia would give up her career in an instant to marry the right man. When she leaves, Lou says she reminds him of his daughter. Billie, who has been smiling and silent throughout this, then lowers the boom.
It’s in every way a positive portrayal, almost to an excess. Billie can’t get her head round why such a winner as Patti could be fucking strange men for money, which, let us remind ourselves, is what he does for a living and why we are interested in her in the first place. The closest we get to an explanation starts to introduce the classic (i.e., stereotypical) elements: broken home, unstable mother, stepfather with whom she made love at age 12 (that is how it is presented: the word rape of a minor can’t be used here, which is either some belated squeamishness or else a subtle foreshadowing that our paragon of prostitutes may be something less than she presents.
Because despite Patti being this near-Goddess figure, the show isn’t going to let her have her cake and eat it. In a disappointing volte-face, it first has Patti busted for solicitation on the eve of her exam but, instead of having that as a twist of cruel fate, it then kicks Patti’s legs out from underneath her, unconvincingly. Patti’s still in her work clothes, she’s only got 15 minutes until her exam starts, she can’t make it on time, and her head is understandably not in the right place. So she gives up. Just like that. Goes in to the Spa because they’re short-handed. Who am I kidding? she says. She’ll try again, but we immediately know she won’t. Patti has surrendered. Billie accuses her of being lazy, taking the easy way out (yeah, prostitution is the easy thing to do, isn’t it?).
What the ending is really about, as I’m sure you can see, is not letting the bad girl win. It doesn’t matter how many bright and positive aspects she has, how much a winner she really is, she spreads her legs for strange men and she has to pay for that. The final scene, of Patti closing a door into a room where she’s taken her last John of the day, a silent guy who creeps the less-experienced Karen out, invites us to infer that this John will be her killer: despite her cave-in, Wallace still leaves us thinking this is unfair.
Call it the times, and perhaps Network policy dictated that you could not show a Hooker as a winner, in case it inspired all those fresh-faced teenage daughters of America into thinking, hey, if I fuck for money, I too can become a realtor!, but the episodes bottles it seriously, and for that matter is on tenterhooks throughout, because it cannot really solve for itself just how someone like Patti becomes a prostitute. There’s a truly risible scene, late on, a cross-the-generations musing on changing sexual attitudes, where Billie wonders why, in an age where women now own their sexual freedom and are equal, the industry still exists and Lou delivers a philosophical thought that men used to be brought up to believe women were there to please them and, now that they’re expected to please the woman too, it’s scary (insert your own sarcastic comment, why should I do all the work?). At least with a hooker, they know they’re giving her what she wants, hint, hint, jangle your loose change.
I’ve been savage on this episode and it doesn’t really have any defence except the one of That Was Then, This Is Now. Lou Grant was prime-time Network TV in America, ITV Saturday night 9.00pm in the UK. It was forty years ago. Very possibly, this was the best they were allowed to do. But that doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticism, nor that we should at all forgive the abrupt way it cuts Patti off at the knees, which is wrong in every era.